It was Helen Keller who said, "History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas." This was in response to the infamous book burning of 1933. The fires were started by students - Nazi children. It's not difficult to imagine a similar scenario in 2012. Students hurling their textbooks onto a swelling pyre. Not because they necessarily have a problem with literature - an indifference, perhaps. (I nearly had to distribute toothpicks to prevent my students' eyelids from snapping shut while listening to a reading of Percival Everett's "Appropriation of Cultures" - one of the most stimulating pieces of short fiction I have had the privilege to read.) But rather they might be inclined to feed their pages to the flame because books in the flesh have become superfluous. Antiquated. Dangerous, even, when one compares the blood-thirsty, finger-slicing corners of pulp to the cool, smooth edges of an electronic reader.
But indulge me for a moment: Lean forward. Place your nose on the computer screen (or smartphone or ipad or yes, even the Kindle Fire). Really get in there and breathe deeply. What do you smell? Honestly. Nothing, right? Now find the nearest book. Even a phone book will do, although, who has one of those? Run your thumb from spine to spine, shuffle the pages and let the breeze fill your nostrils. See? Books are living things. They breathe out as you breathe in. They have dog-ears for pity's sake. And old books, like people, harbor the most interesting odors. A mixture of leather and Shalimar. Of sweat and dirt and everything and everyone they've ever touched or been touched by. They are the keepers of our collective memory - memory which doesn't require batteries or bytes.
In the business section of yesterday's NY Times, Julie Bosman writes about the future of the bookstore as we know it. In other words - Barnes & Noble. Now that they are the only game in town - publishers have no choice but to ask: "What if all those store shelves vanished, and Barnes & Noble became little more than a cafe and a digital connection point?" Apparently, this is exactly what Jeffery P. Bezos, top executive at Amazon would like to see happen. Mr. Bezos, as the Times refers to him, looks exactly like Dr. Evil. Look him up. In yesterday's paper, he is holding some machination of the Kindle at eye level and staring into the camera with empty eyes. It is his vision to 'eliminate the middle-man' (even when someone is being eliminated, it's a man) and create his own publishing "unit" - isn't that a nice word. If it's too much trouble to heave a book to and fro, when will it be too taxing to visit a restaurant? Why not just take a delicious dinner pill?
And it's not just a dream. The Times reports Bezos has already 'snagged' some guy named Timothy Ferriss and hold onto your hat - James Franco, the spoiled brat best friend of Spider Man turned fiction writer. Holy crap, Batman! The bookshelves are already a bit too polluted with 'novels' supposedly written by the puppets of reality television. Dr. Evil + the son of the Green Goblin = the metaphorical murder of print via 'books' which can only live on a 5x7 screen. And even if you could stomach that - accept it as progress - and You Can't Stop Progress - there's the fact that we'd be stuck with whatever Mr. Evil deems as publishable. Again - say it ain't so, Batman.
So here's what I propose: Stop ordering cheap books from Amazon. Books which are not on display for you to sniff or caress in a well-lit store (albeit B&N which has squeezed out other big-box stores as well as who knows how many independent booksellers and now they're all we've got). Books which are probably treated much like factory livestock - crammed up against one another in dark and dank warehouses down by the river. I implicate myself in this too. I love a good bargain as much as the next gal, but after reading this article, I have vowed to save my cash and buy my books in person - which of course, I do anyway, but in the past, I have also ordered from Amazon and now I will not.
While you are in the bookstore - a.k.a. Barnes & Noble - please check out Jane McCafferty's new novel First You Try Everything. A generous writer and human being, reading her latest effort (which is set in our fair, shared city) is like being transported to Pittsburgh when the Three Rivers Arts Festival is in full swing and the inclines are scaling Mt. Washington on a day when the sun is shining and the humidity is low and the cityscape is in perfect view as you travel west - unimpeded by tunnel traffic on I-279 (or 376) depending on how long you've lived here. It is a story of an unconventional love (aren't all the best books about love? isn't it the common denominator?)yet it's classified as 'women's fiction' if you look it up on Amazon. But you won't do that. You'll find it on the shelf of new fiction - right next to books by Julian Barnes and Stewart O'Nan - (I haven't researched this, but certainly these authors' titles would have to be classified as men's fiction, right?)You'll find this book on foot. Your fingers have done enough walking for today.
Like Helen Keller, I don't believe you can kill ideas, but let's not get so smart that we stop paying attention to the ideas - ideas that could lead to the death of so many old friends - books.